Is Shepard Fairey a Plagiarizing Half-Wit?

UPDATE – 11:48pm February 4th: The Huffington Post has an article which says the AP is accusing Shepard Fairey of stealing one of their photographs for his Obama posters. Shepard Fairey admits he used their image and is claiming fair use. Even though I may wish Shepard Fairey would properly credit sources, I’m also a big fan of fair use. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Shepard Fairey Obama poster fame is a plagiarist and unimaginative artist. At least that’s what Dan Wasserman of The Boston Globe considers and artist Mark Vallen seems to believe.

From the Boston Globe:

Vallen makes a strong case that Fairey appropriates, without attribution, the images and designs of other artists. He posts multiple examples, including art from the Czechoslvakian Prague Spring, art from the Industrial Workers of the World, Cuban poster art of the 60s and this example (left) directly copying the art nouveau drawing of Koloman Moser (1868-1918) (right).

Fairey Moser from Boston Globe

Fairey seems at ease with his borrowing. In the 450-page catalog for the ICA show, he responds: “This guy Mark Vallen found every reference in every poster and every t-shirt that I’ve ever used. Out of hundreds of images, there’s a dozen or so that were based on things from historical posters. First of all, I’m always assuming that these posters are known by people, so my referencing is not a big secret. These aren’t obscure images… Usually I’m using an image as an intentional reference.” But his art itself makes no mention of its sources or derivative nature, and, contrary to Fairley’s assertions, much of the art he copies (like Moser’s) is not famous enough to be well-known to most of his audience.

Of course, I think most fans of OBEY and Shepard Fairey are aware that Shepard Fairey does re-appropriate some imagery or (such as in the case of his Obama poster) create his designs by transforming a photograph into his trademark style, but Vallen’s accussations are of outright plagerism. I think Shepard Fairey is one of the most talented guys working right now, but it does worry me a bit how much of his work is really done by artists from 100 years ago. I certainly was not familiar with Moser’s work, and Vallen’s many examples in his article show just how often this happens with OBEY clothing or posters. Shepard Fairey even seems to be the root of that Nazi Skull t-shirt Wal-Mart was selling a few years back.

Although I won’t go as far as Vallen in my condemnation of Shepard Fairey (I am still a fan), I have to agree with Wasserman here. Part of the OBEY campaign’s core is to reuse old imagery and propoganda to fit our modern times, and that’s part of what makes it so great, but Shepard Fairey really should find a way to attribute original artists behind the source material. I don’t expect him to start footnoting posters, but he could easily do something along those lines in his books or at his gallery and museum shows. Instead, he’s just ignoring the fact that he’s taken these images from other people who worked hard to create them.

Another point Wasserman makes is about whether Shepard Fairey is head of a leftist and anti-consumerist art factory or a design agency.

He inveighs against the depredations of consumer culture, but his design firm works on a “Want It!” campaign for Saks Fifth Avenue. He wants the street cred of a revolutionary artist extolling freedom fighters and quoting Noam Chomsky while doing “guerrilla” marketing campaigns for Netscape and Pepsi.

OBEY This is Your GodOBEY LogoOBEY Cost of Oil

I’ve written about this before, and I think it is a serious threat to Shepard Fairey’s long term street cred and respect. How can a street artist whose core image (OBEY) is anti-consumerist design advertising campaigns for the very corporations that he is supposedly fighting against? I don’t mind a Black Eyed Peas album cover now and again (even Banksy did a Blur album cover), but there is no way that he can claim “I was just taking the piss” when he’s making his money helping Saks Fifth Avenue sell more cashmere sweaters. It’s not like he couldn’t make a living purely as an artist if he wanted to. If I ever meet the man, these issues are the second and third things I’m asking him about (after “Can I have a free print?” of course).

In the end, I’m still a fan, just a slightly more trepidatious one. After all, he got Obama elected, and if you can compartmentalize, he still creates extremely powerful images.

I’ll be watching the comments on this post closely. What do you think of Shepard Fairey’s commercial work and his reuse of other people’s images? Is it all in good fun, or does this hurt his image?


Photos from OBEY Giant and The Boston Globe (see how crediting is done?)